I'm often asked to offer comparison between laser cutters 'X' and 'Y'. I feel it's important to try and offer impartial advice, we do have our own laser importing business after all so it would be very easy to be biased. The trouble is that I'm not sure what people are really asking when they want two machines compared so I thought I'd write a little blog post to talk about the basic comparison and discuss the most important thing that people always overlook.
Laser cutters are often presented alongside a pretty dull technical spec sheet. This is straight forward list of details about laser power, cutting area and cutting speeds, sometimes it also includes price. I would hope that most people are able to do these comparisons for themselves. Bigger cutting area is better, more laser power is better and often comes at an increased price.
This is where the question confuses me. The only information I have about the other laser cutter is this dull spreadsheet which is easy to compare and laser cutters are all very similar mechanically. Big metal box to avoid blinding, check. Laser beams to cut through material, check. Extractor fan to keep air breathable, check. In fact it's the most significant item and the most important detail that is often glossed over on the list or ignored completely. I'm unable to comment/compare the Laser cutter controller if the listing doesn't even tell me what controller it is.
The control software is such a significant part of the whole laser cutter experience I'm completely amazed that some listings don't even mention what the controller is. 90% of the time the laser cutter is a black box on the end of a usb cable, you deal with the software interface to prepare the files you are working on. You need software that is functional and straight forward at the very least. I've seen a laser cutter that had Chinese software called 'Printer Driver', that was all we knew about it and it's impossible to Google that for any more information.
If I were buying another laser cutter I would insist upon knowing what controller it came with in advance. If I can't find any useful resources about that software online I would not purchase the laser, it's a simple as that. Life is too short to faff with badly written software, some of these laser cutter controllers are even described as completely unusable by reviewers. I would even go one step further, if a supplier is unable to provide me with a demo version of the control software it would worry me. Are they trying to hide their bad software or do they just not know how to set up the demo? Either case is pretty bad, and this applies to all manufacturers, cheap eBay lasers and UK importers.
These are standards that I hold our own company to. All of our laser cutters use Lasercut 5.3.I won't lie and tell you it is the greatest software ever written; it is the perfectly acceptable face of cheap laser cutter controllers. We offer a download and demo version of the software so you can check it out before you even get near one of our machines. The community is also pulling together to create some really useful resources for it and are slowly dissecting some of the more complex parts of the system.
- Graham Wideman has an absolute goldmine of useful information
- Nottingham Hackspace covers the day to day operation extremely well
- London Hackspace made great headway figuring out the file format
- Even Just Add Sharks covers the basic drawing operation.